posted: October 14, 2016 1:20 pm

How Family Programs Can Reduce Youth Violence

Dynamics inside the home set the stage for how children interact, live, and grow outside of it – including their involvement in violence.  Witnessing violent confrontations or experiencing harsh discipline at home can increase a child’s lifetime likelihood of adverse mental health effects, low school achievement, and becoming a victim him/herself.

To date, Get IN Chicago has committed more than $1.1 million to support and study evidence-based parenting programs for nearly 900 caregivers in Chicago.  On October 12, a full room of about 100 research partners, practitioners, and parents joined Get IN Chicago for their Parental INvolvement Summit to discuss the most promising strategies gleaned from family programs around the city.

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Here are a few key takeaways shared by our featured speakers:

1. Program Content: Most parenting programs share the same core lessons – fostering an environment of love, guidance, structure, and support for young people – but the panelists noted that emphasis should shift depending on a program’s intended audience.

For instance, because the B-PROUD model was developed for black families, its content includes positive racial identity components linked to mental health gains and reduced violence among youth of color.  The Dovetail Project’s focus on young, black fathers in Chicago is reflected in content that includes life skills, job skills, and avoiding the criminal justice system, in addition to core parenting techniques.

“Ultimately, wise counsel is the factor that comes up again and again,” said Dr. Waldo Johnson, Jr., Associate Professor at the School of Social Service Administration and Faculty Affiliate at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago.  “In the end, it far outweighs anything material that parents, in any economic circumstance, can provide.”

University of Chicago Get IN Chicago

Dr. Johnson’s work includes research on multiple national studies involving parents, children, and race, including the senior leadership of Parents and Children Together (PACT), a national longitudinal study of nonresident fathers.

2. Teaching and Delivery: The best program in the world is ineffective if parents don’t connect with the facilitator. Establishing comfortable, trusting relationships between teachers and participants was cited as a key factor.  Each speaker also commended their teachers for translating content according to racial, cultural, and economic realities while maintaining the professionalism that parents crave from classes.

“I tell my teachers that classes should be like making cookies,” said Katharine Bensinger, LCPC at Metropolitan Family Services and the creator of Parenting Fundamentals.  An evidence-based program, Parenting Fundamentals has shown gains of 40% in positive parenting knowledge and behaviors in participants referred by the Department of Family and Child Services (DCFS).  “You can have your own style – add walnuts, coconut, cinnamon – but you still need to stick the recipe: the model.  There is a difference between innovation and reinvention.”

Metropolitan Family Services Get IN Chicago CJ

CJ Pruitt (far right) is an educator with the MFS Parenting Fundamentals program in Englewood.

3. Recruitment: Getting parents, especially those who might most benefit from classes, to join is often a program’s most challenging task, but multiple speakers cited parent graduates as their best recruiters and advocates.

“When parents hear how B-PROUD has been linked to higher GPAs and better mental health for kids, they’re interested,” said Dr. Jelani Mandara, Associate Professor at Northwestern University and creator of the evidence-based B-PROUD model.  “Hearing it from Mrs. Jones down the street or someone they know already is even better.”

4. Improvement and Measurement: Evaluation doesn’t need to be synonymous with high-level randomized control trials. Get IN Chicago Executive Director Toni Irving encouraged nonprofits to take advantage of existing evidence-based programs to reduce the pressure of establishing proof and increase focus on teaching and improvement.

Tracking attendance, examining dosage, and using pre-post tests can help nonprofits better understand what works about their programs – with the added benefit of making the case for funding.  “In the new nonprofit world, donors want outcomes and bang for their buck,” said Sheldon Smith, founder of The Dovetail Project.  To date, Dovetail Project has graduated more than 230 young fathers, 70% of whom have achieved their GED within a year. “They deserve to know what the program can do.  But on the nonprofit side, we also need to know this information so that we can do our jobs better.”

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The event closed with reflections from two graduates of B-PROUD and Parenting Fundamentals, Jeneen Edwards and Myrtis Hyman, speaking about what they gained from the programs.

“Now, I’m better equipped to handle my 13 year old,” said Jeneen, who admitted to taking Parenting Fundamentals twice because she found it so valuable.  “I set more boundaries and schedules, and I speak to him with more respect… I’m modeling these behaviors for him, and I see him modeling them for my younger kids.  And I see how these positive behaviors can start to go on and on.”

Myrtis, who participated in the B-PROUD program with Youth Guidance, similarly recounted how her parenting style has shifted in a positive way.  “My parents never asked me, ‘What do you like to do, Myrtis? Who do you want to be?’ And I never asked my own kids those questions either,” she said.  “But with my grandson, I know better now.  I tell him all the time, ‘Joseph, you’re going to be a great man… and no matter what, I’m behind you 100%.”

Youth Guidance Get IN Chicago

Myrtis Hyman poses with staff members from the Youth Guidance Family Engagement team, which delivers the B-PROUD program in Austin and Englewood.